Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.
19. The Engineered Yes
"The public is enormously gullible at times."
-- The Public Relations Journal.
Persuaders who earn their livelihood as public-relations experts sometimes feel a little underappreciated when they see the massive persuasion efforts undertaken by their colleagues, the ad men. As one complained in The Engineering of Consent, a manual of public-relations techniques edited by Edward L. Bernays: "Many more millions are spent in engineering consent for products than in creating favorable attitudes toward the companies which make them. . . ." He went on to urge his co-workers to borrow from the advanced persuasion techniques being practiced in the marketing field "because organized research is much more highly developed here."
By the mid-fifties public relations had become quite a bursting field for persuasive endeavor, much of it in depth. One hundred leading companies alone were reported spending a total of more than $50,000,000; and the number of practitioners in supervisory capacities in the United States was estimated at about 40,000. Some of the larger P.R. firms such as Carl Byoir and Associates and Hill and Knowlton were reported having billings running into millions of dollars a year. The Harvard Law School, in setting up a study of public opinion and persuasion, explained that the move seemed imperative because of tlie "multiplication of channels of communication to the public. ... At every turn we see manifestations of the systematic consideration of efforts to inform and persuade the public. . . ."
These channels of communication of mid-century America were enumerated, as inviting pastures for public-relations endeavors, in The Engineering of Consent, as follows:
1,800 daily newspapers 10,000 weekly newspapers 7,600 magazines 2,000 trade journals 7,635 periodicals geared to race groups 100,000,000 radio sets 12,000,000 TV sets 15,000 motion-picture houses 6,000 house organs.
Judge Learned Hand expressed himself as being enormously disturbed by the growth of professional publicists in our society. He called publicity "a black art" but agreed it has come to stay. "Every year adds to the potency, to the finality of its judgments," he said.
By the fifties some of our publicist-persuaders, feeling their power, were no longer content with such bread-and-butter chores as arranging publicity and helping their company or client maintain a cheerful, law-abiding countenance to present to the world. They were eager to get into mind-molding on the grand scale. As one P.R. counselor, G. Edward Pendray, stated: "To public-relations men must go the most important social engineering role of them all -- the gradual reorganization of human society, piece by piece and structure by structure." Evidently it was vaguely felt that by such grandiose feats their calling of public relations might finally be given full professional status. The more successful operators in public relations were sensitive about the fact that a motley assortment of people flew the flag of "public relations": hustling press agents, lobbyists, greeters, fixers. There were efforts to define public relations. One of the most prominent practitioners, Carl Byoir, however, stated that "public relations is whatever the individual practitioner thinks it is."
Some leaders in the field began groping for a new name for public relations. They felt "public relations" had a rather insincere sound. The outgoing president of the Public Relations Society of America in 1954 pointed out that some companies were dropping the "public-relations" identification of their executives in charge of P.R. to prevent "the illusion that their program is contrived" and not a part of the company's basic philosophy.
As public relations grew and grew, it found itself in some seemingly strange fields. The Public Relations Journal of March, 1954, carried a glowing report on the way smart preachers were putting P.R. to work to fill up the pews and maintain a "strong financial condition." It conceded that one "obstacle" to a really hard-hitting use of P.R. in sacred activities was that a "dignified approach" is demanded. Another obstacle is "the problem of showing the practical worth of some religious values." But it added: "If we are to pattern our techniques on those of the Master, we must bring the truth down where people can understand it ... talk about common things . . . speak the language of the people. [Here was shown a picture of Jesus in a boat talking to Disciples.]" The report detailed how the smart preacher can use TV and other mass media, and how to cope with "Mr. Backslider." (He is wooed back by "psychological influences.") The final tip to preachers was to check results carefully to find just "what clicked.
In striving to increase their penetrating powers (and perhaps their own sense of importance) publicist-persuaders turned to the depth approach in great numbers during the fifties. Raptly they soaked up the lore of the social scientists. The book The Engineering of Consent edited by Mr. Bernays, the famed publicist (University of Oklahoma Press, 1955), is studded with references to the findings of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and social psychologists. The studies of these scientists, he notes, are "a gold mine of theme-symbol source material" for public-relations counsels.
Bernays explains the need to take the depth approach with people in order to give them the right attitudes in these words: "It would be ideal if all of us could make up our minds independently by evaluating all pertinent facts objectively. That, however, is not possible." In a later chapter a publicist amplifies this by discussing Vilfredo Pareto's theory on the nonlogical elements in human activities and then quotes Richard Worthington's comments on Pareto's General Sociology, in these words:There are [in this book] certain ideas and discoveries which may ... be of considerable value ... to those who wish to modify society. . . . Many men . . . have tried to change the conduct of people by reasonings, or by passing certain laws. Their endeavors have often been peculiarly barren of results. . . . Pareto shows how their failure is associated with the importance of the non-logical .... People must be controlled by manipulating their [instincts and emotions] rather than by changing their reasonings. This is a fact of which politicians have always made use when they have persuaded their constituents by appealing to their sentiments, rather than by employing [reasoning], which would never be listened to or at least never prove effective for moving the crowds.
Mr. Bernays has gotten his views published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, where he pointed out that "newsworthy events involving people usually do not happen by accident. They are planned deliberately to accomplish a purpose, to influence ideas and actions."
The files of The Public Relations Journal contain what to an outsider may seem like a startling number of accounts of American men of science co-operating intimately and confidentially with the mind-molders, and would-be molders, of public relations. To cite a few examples: In June, 1953, the journal described, under the title "Orientation in the Social Sciences," a series of seminars held at Columbia University Teachers' College for New York members of the Public Relations Society of America. Six doctors in the social sciences, headed by Lyman Bryson, social anthropologist, did the "orienting." (All were Columbia men.) Dr. Bryson told the publicists:
"If you are engineering consent, then I think the social sciences would like to warn you that you should begin with a basic analysis of three levels upon which consent moves in a society like ours." The first level, he said, is human nature. He added that little could really be done here to "manipulate" people. The second level was cultural change, which is where you must operate, he said, if you want to. influence people's ideas. The third level is the region of choice. Here is where an impulse is running in a particular direction, and some sort of choice will be made regardless, "as when a choice between similar products is made." At this level, he said, "it is relatively easy to manipulate people." On the other hand, if you are trying to change their ideas, "you work on the second level," where different "psychological pressures, techniques, and devices from those successful on the third level" must be used.
Earlier in the year two different issues covered at length "The Social Science Session," which explored the "close interrelation of public-relations practice and the social sciences." The Journal introduced the report with this blurb: "Social Science holds the answer -- if we can but get hold of it -- to many of the . . . problems with which we are so ineffectually struggling these days."
On hand to advise the publicists on how to "get hold of" the answers were two social scientists of the first rank: Dr. Rensis Likert, director of the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; and Dr. Samuel A. Stouffer, director of the Laboratory of Social Relations, Harvard University. Dr. Stouffer said it was a great privilege to come before the gathering of "practitioners of human relations," and he proceeded to tell his listeners it was a good working rule that people's attitudes are more easily reached through their emotions than through their intellects. He added that at the Harvard laboratory "we are doing some intensive research on the subject of fear in connection with learning theory." He held out promise that in years to come public-relations practitioners might be able to find in the material "practical guides for action." Dr. Likert talked at length on what motivates people and how their behavior can be changed by changing "the motivational forces working upon them."
Those were just two of several accounts of scientists orienting the publicists. A bystander reading the accounts might feel an impulse to tug the doctors' sleeves and warn them to give thought to the uses to which their insights might be put by unsqueamish or rough-playing listeners who might possibly be in the audience.
There was some evidence that the American public was becoming accustomed to having its attitudes manipulated by public-relations experts. David Riesman noted in The Lonely Crowd that residents of a great suburban development outside Chicago took an odd way of showing their annoyance against the management for all the irritating aspects of the arrangements there. He said complaints were frequently put in terms of the bad public relations shown by the management. "In effect people were complaining not about their direct grievances but because they felt they had not been so manipulated as to make them like it," he reported.
The engineering of consent has taken hold to a startling extent in a field that might at first seem unlikely: fund raising Americans are reputed to be the most generous people in the world. By mid-century philanthropy ranked as the nation's fourth largest industry in terms of dollars. Spontaneous giving, however, was just a memory as far as large-scale philanthropy was concerned.
To assure big giving, big persuaders came into existence By 1956 there were more than four hundred professional fund-raising firms dotted across the land, most of them schooled in manipulative techniques.
Business Week counseled its executive readers not to be scornful of the professional fund raisers who might approach them for help. These people, it said, are not necessarily "impractical visionaries." As a matter of fact, it added reassuringly, "you'll find that many have a surprising grasp of sound business principles."
The professional fund raisers claim they can collect for a cause many times as much money as they cost. And they are probably right. America's most noted fund raiser, John Price Jones, contended in The Engineering of Consent (he wrote a chapter) that fund raising is one of the most highly developed forms of public relations. "It takes better public relations to get a man to give a dollar than it does to convince him to spend a dollar," he explained. Jones contends that with solicitors even enthusiasm is not enough unless it is "brought into an organized machine." The professionals themselves usually stay in the background, because local residents are apt to resent them, and confine themselves to master-minding the drive.
If you are an important prospect the professional fund raiser probably knows more about you than do your best friends. As Jerome Beatty explained it in describing Mr. Jones's operations in The American Magazine:The expert fund raiser will tip off solicitors as to your weaknesses and how to touch the tender spot in your heart just as a baseball pitcher knows whether the batter goes for a curve or for a fast ball. John Price Jones has a file of more than 66,000 names of persons all over the U.S. who have given substantial sums to worthy causes and who are likely to give more if properly approached. This file is kept up to date by six girls and one man who read and clip newspapers, magazines, trade journals, collect corporate reports, financial ratings. For each person there is a file almost as complete as the FBI keeps on suspected Communists.
These professional fund raisers soon got into the depth approach to their calling when they sought to discover the real reasons people are willing to give away large parcels of their money, and the real reasons citizens are willing to volunteer to punch doorbells as solicitors.
The "real" deep-down reasons people can be stimulated most easily to give to charitable causes or to serve as volunteer solicitors for those causes appear to be several in the view of leading fund raisers. Most of the explanations boil down to masked forms of self-aggrandizement or ego-gratification. First is self-interest. Mr. Jones feels that when this motive is properly promoted, for example, it can always bring recruits into service as solicitors. He accepts the fact as basic that self-interest is a primary motivation in all of life and is "basic to successful organization." This self-interest angle was stressed in The Public Relations Journal in a discussion for public-relations men on the way they should guide their companies in the matter of local causes and philanthropies. The writer, a public-relations director, stated: "Contributions should always serve the best interests of the corporation. They should return direct benefits, as through improved community hospitals where employees reside, or there should be a long-range return, as through schools."
A second reason people may be impelled to give is "public interest," according to the professional persuaders' viewpoint. Mr. Jones, however, says this is far less forceful than self-interest and actually may often involve some self-interest, too, "as in the case of those who have private interests which can benefit from the reflection of their service in the interest of the public."
The third force Mr. Jones mentions is the social or business benefit that accrues from associating with "the best people in town." He pointed out that if you get the best people it is surprising how many other people are downright eager to serve. And he adds that salesmen have often found that being active in a drive is a "fertile field for building their own acquaintanceship."
Researchers have found more than thirty reasons why people give, according to Mr. Beatty, who mentions as potent stimulants the possibility of the amount of their contribution appearing in the local paper, or their picture, or "fear of what people will say if the contribution is small." If you are sensitive to the status angle, he added, the professionals will let you buy "all the publicity and social prestige you will pay for."
In smaller communities a generous contribution is often solicited on the golf course. If the president of the bank casually mentions to you on the street, "By the way, we need a fourth on Sunday. How about it?" Mr. Beatty warns that you may be the next prospect on his list. Beatty added: "You probably beat him at golf, but at the nineteenth hole he will probably sign you up for a big contribution."